“I prefer to see [chemistry] as the study of change . . . that’s all
of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution — dissolution,
just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay,
then — transformation! It is fascinating, really.” — Walter White
We meet Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and Walt’s family. Walt is poleaxed by some tragic news. With nothing to lose, Walt decides to try to make one big score, and damn the consequences. For that, however, he needs the help of Jesse Pinkman, a former student turned loser meth cook and drug dealer.
From the moment you see those khakis float down out of a perfectly blue desert sky, you know that you’re watching a show like nothing else on television. The hard beauty and stillness of the American Southwest is shattered by a wildly careening RV driven by a pasty white guy with a developing paunch wearing only a gas mask and tighty-whities.
What the hell?
Like all pilots, this one is primarily exposition, but unlike most, the exposition is beautifully handled as the simple background of Walter’s life. The use of a long flashback as the body of the episode works well, in no small part due to Bryan Cranston’s brilliant performance in the opening, which gives us a Walter White so obviously, desperately out of his element that we immediately wonder how this guy wound up pantsless in the desert and apparently determined to commit suicide-by-cop. After the opening credits, the audience is taken on an intimate tour of Walt’s life. Again, Cranston sells it perfectly. The viewer is presented with a middle-aged man facing the back half of his life from the perspective of an early brilliance and promise that has somehow imploded into a barely-making-ends-meet existence as a high school chemistry teacher. He has to work a lousy second job to support his pregnant wife and disabled teenage son and still can’t afford to buy a water heater.
Executive producer and series creator Vince Gilligan, along with the cast and crew (Gilligan & Co.), take the audience through this day in the life of Walt, and it’s just one little humiliation after another. The only time Walt’s eyes sparkle in the first half of the episode is when he is giving his introductory lecture to his chemistry class. Here Walt transcends his lowermiddle-class life in an almost poetic outpouring of passion for this incredible science. Of course, even that brief joy is crushed by the arrogant insolence of the archetypal high school jackass who stays just far enough inside the line that Walt can’t do a damn thing about him. So this is Walt and his life, as sad sack as you can get, with no real prospects of improvement, a brother-in-law who thinks he’s a wuss, and a wife who doesn’t even pay attention during birthday sex.
Until everything changes.
The sociologist and criminologist Lonnie Athens would likely classify Walt’s cancer diagnosis as the beginning of a “dramatic self change,” brought on by something so traumatic that a person’s self — the very thoughts, ideas, and ways of understanding and interacting with the world — is shattered, or “fragmented,” and in order to survive, the person must begin to replace that old self, those old ideas, with an entirely new worldview. (Athens and his theories are discussed much more fully in the previous What’s Cooking essay, but since we warned you not to read that if you don’t want to risk spoilage, the basic — and spoiler-free — parts are mentioned here.) Breaking Bad gives us this fragmentation beautifully. Note how from the viewer’s perspective Walt is upside down as he is moved into the MRI machine, a motif smoothly repeated in the next scene with Walt’s reflection in the top of the doctor’s desk. Most discombobulating of all, however, is the consultation with the doctor. At first totally voiceless behind the tinnitus-like ambient soundtrack and faceless except for his chin and lips, the doctor and the news he is imparting are made unreal, out of place, and alien. As for Walt, in an exquisite touch of emotional realism, all he can focus on is the mustard stain on the doctor’s lab coat. How many of us, confronted with such tragic news, have likewise found our attention focused, randomly, illogically, on some similar mundanity of life?
It is from this shattered self that Walt begins to operate and things that would have been completely out of the question for pre-cancer Walt are now actual possibilities — things like finding a big score before he dies by making and selling pure crystal meth. Remember that Walt is a truly brilliant chemist, and knows full well what crystal meth is and what it does to people who use it. He may not know exactly what he’s getting into, but he knows what he is doing.
Enter Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, best known previously for his role on Big Love), a skinny white-boy gangster wannabe who, under the name “Cap’n Cook,” makes a living cooking and selling meth. He’s also an ex-student of Walt’s, and after being recognized by his former teacher during a drug bust, Walt has all the leverage he needs to coerce Jesse into helping him. Why does he need him? Because, as Walt says, “you know the business, and I know the chemistry.” Symbolizing just how far beyond his old life Walt is moving, he and Jesse park their battered RV/meth lab in the desert outside of Albuquerque, far from the city and any signs of human life. All that is there is a rough dirt road and a “cow house” in the distance. The desert is a place without memory, a place outside of things, where secrets can be kept, and meth can be cooked. This is where Walt lives now.
It is in this desert space that Walt becomes a killer, albeit in self-defense. Ironically, the one thing that Walt views as holding the keys to the secret of life — chemistry — becomes the means to end lives. Walt, a father, teacher, and an integral part of an extended family — in other words, an agent of life and growth — has now become a meth cook, using chemical weapons to kill his enemies. Walter White has become an agent of death.
The transformation is just beginning, but already Skyler (Anna Gunn, previously known for her roles on The Practice and Deadwood) is having some trouble recognizing her husband: “Walt? Is that you?”
© Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz